Female Effigy Vessel

Democratic Republic of Congo. Mangbetu. Early 20th century
Ceramic. 8 x 6 in. (20.2 x 15.1 cm)
1994.3.19
Gift of William S. Arnett

Vessels of this type were created between c.1900 and 1930 as a response to the patronage of the Mangbetu royal court and Western explorers. They were first commissioned by Mangbetu chiefs and then by the American Museum of Natural History’s Congo Expedition of 1909-1914 which provided additional stimulus to production through its collection program. The court favored the figurative style as a marker of prestige and social status, while the finely wrought facial features appealed to the taste of early 20th century Westerners.

The vessel depicts body adornment fashions favored by elite Mangbetu women at the turn of the 20th century. At the time, elongated foreheads were considered highly attractive. To achieve this look royal women wrapped their heads with rope and wove their hair into a conical basket structure. A generalized form of body tattooing appears as incised patterns on the face and rounded chamber of the vessel. The protrusions on the vessel’s neck replicate the appearance of animal teeth necklaces that served as markers of status and protection.

By the 1920s, after Mangbetu body adornment fashions had changed and the production of this type of vessel was losing popularity, this feminine image took on new meanings. For example, its depiction on national postage stamps turned it into a symbol of Zaire. It also circulated globally, both as a representation of Africa and as a source of artistic inspiration for Art Deco jewelry, Harlem Renaissance paintings, and most recently, the ceramic sculptures of transnational artist Magdalene Odundo.